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Climate change scientist gets deluge of farmer questions

Agriculture.com Staff 07/30/2009 @ 8:26am

Gene Takle, a climate scientist from Iowa State University went to Calmar, Iowa, Tuesday at the request of the Iowa Soybean Association to talk about climate change.

Takle, who grew up on a farm in southwest Minnesota, is sympathetic to the concerns many farmers have about whether pending climate change legislation is going to cost them more in fuel and fertilizer costs. But he came without a political agenda, and with a computer full of maps, charts and graphs that shows how the earth's climate has already changed since 1970.

It's a good thing. Almost immediately, Takle was peppered with questions from a skeptic in the front row.

Hasn't the earth been cooling for the past 9 years?

Yes, Takle said, but the overall trend has been up, with the planet already warmer by about 0.6 of a degree Celsius.

Takle showed long-term graphs with temperatures matching closely a rapid rise in carbon dioxide since about 1970.

And aren't the oceans cooling?

Takle showed a global map with areas of heating in red and areas of cooling in blue. The blue ones are there, but you have to hunt for them in a sea of red.

Global warming might be harder to accept in the Midwest, partly because so far, it has brought almost ideal changes for growing corn, with warmer winters, slightly more rainfall, and a decline in daytime high temperatures in the summer that Takle conceded is a puzzle to climate scientists. The last 10 years have seen fewer days with high temperatures above 95. No one know exactly why that is, he said, but one theory is that because the region is wetter, it might take more solar energy to evaporate moisture.

Elsewhere, the picture isn't so pretty.

"We're already seeing that Australia is drying out. Wheat production has tanked," he said. "Saudi Arabia has given up on growing wheat."

The Saudis decided that the cost of irrigating from wells with deep, fossil water wasn't worth it at a cost that was about five times the global price for wheat, he said.

All this fits fairly well with climate computer models that show dry regions of the earth getting drier as temperatures rise, and wetter regions getting wetter.

So far, the changes for Iowa seem almost benign. Average annual rainfall for the state has increased from 31 inches in 1873 to 34 inches today. The planting season is about eight days earlier than 40 years ago, he said.

Gene Takle, a climate scientist from Iowa State University went to Calmar, Iowa, Tuesday at the request of the Iowa Soybean Association to talk about climate change.

But there are downsides. Rising humidity creates a better climate for soybean diseases, for example. And warmer winters favor insect pests. And increasing carbon dioxide favors certain weeds, which will migrate northward along with the insects. "That's already happening," Takle said.

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